Inky Interview: Theoretical Physicist Dr Nicholas Mee: by Kev Milsom

Hello Dr Nicholas and many thanks for agreeing to share some thoughts in an interview with Ink Pantry Publishing. Can I start by taking you back to your school days? The company which you founded – ‘Virtual Image’ – is responsible for some fascinating software, to teach children (and adults) the joys of mathematics and science. When you were at school, were these your two passionate subjects – the ones that drew you in from a young age? If so, what was it about maths and science that held your fascination. Also, what other subjects did you enjoy during your academic journey?

I have always had a wide range of interests. I grew up during the era of the Apollo missions, which may partly explain why as a young child I was fascinated by astronomy. I have also had mathematical interests since I was very young. I used to play mathematical games with my granddad before I was old enough to go to primary school – these include the dominoes game ‘fives and threes’ and the card game cribbage.

In my teens I developed a deep interest in fundamental physics and the key philosophical questions of existence and this remains with me. However, this did not really derive from school, but developed alongside my conventional educational. From my mid-teens I knew that I had to study theoretical physics.

At the same time I have always maintained an interest in the arts and I have been involved in a number of art and science projects over the years.

As someone who home-educated our two daughters for 12 years, I was very interested in the range of software available in this current era. How personally important to you is the element of capturing children’s imagination and inspiration from a very early age and how do think this can be improved over the next generation of parents?

It is very important to inspire children. It is important that they should be highly motivated and also that they have high expectations of themselves and that they should want to seek knowledge for its own sake. Information is more readily available now than ever before. However, there is a danger than the acquisition of knowledge becomes fragmentary with snippets of information taken from here and there rather than learning in a structured, coherent, disciplined and methodical manner. It is the nurturing of skills that are developed and build up over long periods of time that are really important. Skills such as mathematics and critical thinking, musical skills and language skills are essential for a rounded education.

You’ve just finished a new book, co-writing alongside Professor Nick Manton, entitled The Physical World – An Inspirational Tour of Fundamental Physics. Firstly, how different was the process of creative collaboration with Professor Manton and what were the initial goals for you both behind the planning of this book?

Although this is my first co-authored book, I have collaborated with numerous people in the past on various software projects, so working with Nick Manton wasn’t a completely new experience. Writing a book can be a very solitary task. Having a co-author makes the writing process much more enjoyable. Our aim was to produce the modern equivalent of the classic Feynman Lectures written by Richard Feynman and published just over fifty years ago, a book that will inspire a new generation of physicists now setting out to study the subject. We have covered the whole of fundamental physics at a level that is between school and university. As such it was pretty clear to us from the start what topics we should include. There were just two chapters that we added to our initial plan during the course of writing, one about ‘Stars’ and the final chapter ‘Frontiers of Physics’ which explores some of the unanswered questions, such as the interpretation of quantum mechanics.

I’d like to ask about your processes of inspiration. When planning a new book is it usually a thought that has been in your head for some time and put through rational mindsets, or does your motivation tend to rely on more random avenues, whereby seeds can be planted quickly and unexpectedly?

Some of the articles that I have written on my blog have arisen quickly from a recent discovery or a chance observation. It is often very useful when explaining an unfamiliar scientific topic to approach the subject from an oblique angle. I think this helps the reader to feel at ease and to see the world from a slightly different perspective. For instance, the discussion of symmetry in Higgs Force begins with the story of a toy – the kaleidoscope – and the explanation of the strong nuclear force starts with the Japanese board game Go. Similarly, in my second book Gravity the chapter about unifying gravity with the other forces begins with campanology, the English art of ringing church bells.

In 2012, you were asked to build three animations for an exhibition at the Royal Society in London, concerning the mathematician Théodore Olivier and the sculptor, Sir Henry Moore, producing an elaborate and fascinating connection between mathematics and physical art. I’m intrigued to know what elements of artistic creativity inspire you – or have inspired/relaxed you – within your life. Do you find a fascination with the worlds of music, writing & the arts that matches your passion for the scientific world, or are these elements which hold little interest? If the former, who/what has inspired you creatively, especially in terms of literature, art and music?

I listen to music all the time, mainly classical and rock music. I am listening to Hawkwind at the moment, which is perhaps a guilty pleasure – the rock equivalent to listening to Wagner, which I also do quite regularly. I listen to a wide range of classical and rock music, but if I had to choose one classical composer and one rock band that I have found inspirational I would probably choose Beethoven and the Beatles. In the case of the Beatles this is not only because of the quality and variety of their music, but also because of the revolution in popular music that they ignited. To go from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘A Day in the Life’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ in five years is almost miraculous, especially when you take the whole world with you.

I visit the theatre quite often, tomorrow I am going to see Daniel Radcliffe in Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard.

Thank you for a fascinating answer, Nick. As someone who is extremely passionate about music I can totally relate to everything that you say.

When I was a child (aged roughly 7) my mind was completely blown open by a small book on Astronomy and the Solar System. That passion has remained with me ever since and continues to expand my mind and philosophical thinking. If you could live in any historical period relating to scientific discoveries, which one would you choose? Perhaps to be around the time of Newton and the Age of Enlightenment, or would you choose to remain in this fast-paced, contemporary time? Is there a set scientifically-historical period where you have thought, ‘Wow, I wish I had been around back then?’

I have a burning desire to know what it is all about, so I would definitely choose to live now. It is incredible that we now know so much about the scientific world. We only have to go back to the time before Kepler and Galileo just over 400 years ago and essentially nothing was known about anything. The current rate of progress in our understanding of the world is also mind-boggling, especially in the biological sciences. We are also in the middle of a golden age of astronomy and astrophysics, which is largely due to the development of the current generation of observatories both Earth-based and space-based. Gravitational waves were detected for the first time last year, and it is only five years since the discovery of the Higgs boson. The Event Horizon Telescope has just gone into operation to study the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy, so this year we could see the first ever image of a black hole.

Going back to education, within the educational school curriculum, where would you make major/minor changes, in terms of creating a sense of inspirational wonder within children? Or do you believe that the system is about right as it is?

This is a difficult question for me as I don’t have first hand experience of the classroom. There are a lot of improvements that could be made. In my view state schools in the UK should be brought up to the standard of the top private schools. This is essential if the UK is to compete with other countries around the world. In order to achieve this, a lot more money needs to be spent on education.

It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nick and many thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas. In conclusion, I’d like to ask what 2017 & 2018 hold in store for you, in terms of new plans and publications?

I am currently writing a book with David Benjamin with the provisional title How Mathematics Conquered the World. It is about the development of computing from Pythagoras to logarithms to Babbage, Turing and Google. David Benjamin is a maths teacher who I have worked with on many software projects over the years, such as the Maths Lesson Starters series of CD-ROMs. There are also various other book projects that have been suggested that may or may not come to fruition.


Dr Nick’s blog

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